Short track is often described as “NASCAR on ice” for the speed of the skaters, jostling for position and, of course, the spectacular crashes.
But a better comparison might be “playing chess at 30 miles per hour, with a little bit of gambling involved too.”
That’s how U.S. skater John-Henry Krueger said his mom described it. Any short track skater will tell you that their sport takes just as much mental skill, from building a race strategy to taking calculated risks, as physical prowess.
And one more thing: The sport is definitely not all luck.
“Skill definitely overtakes luck when it comes to winning nine times out of 10,” J.R. Celski, a three-time Olympic medalist, said. “You can't say that people win in this sport because of luck.”
But people often do say exactly that. One of the most memorable races in Olympic short track history was the 1000m at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, where Steven Bradbury became the first Australian athlete to win a Winter Olympic gold medal.
Going into the final straightaway, Bradbury was lagging behind when the four skaters in front of him, including the U.S.’ Apolo Ohno and Russia’s Viktor Ahn (then competing for South Korea under the name Ahn Hyun-Soo), all crashed. With his competitors knocked off their feet, Bradbury was able to cruise to the finish line in first place—and was immediately branded “the luckiest Olympic champion ever.”
But Bradbury didn’t win just because he was the last man standing; he won because he had a winning strategy. The oldest in the field, Bradbury knew he couldn’t keep up with the other skaters and so planned to stay in the back of the pack. He also knew that his competitors tended to favor risky and aggressive moves, making them more likely to make more mistakes—which he would then be in position to take advantage of.
It’s a perfect example of how each short track racer develops a game plan based on who he or she is racing against.
“You know your opponents because we race each other all the time,” Celski said. “And you kind of know what they're going to do and know what to expect.”
But even with that knowledge, “there are no guarantees,” Krueger explained. “You never know what the person's condition is going be, what’s their strategy, if there's going be any team play.”
“You cannot control what people around you are going to do,” Katherine Reutter, who won a silver and bronze at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, said. “And it is just up to you to be the best you can be with what you have that day.”
That’s another crucial part of short track strategy: not getting so distracted by what your competitors are doing that you forget to focus on yourself.
“It's really easy while you're in the middle of a pack in a race to get caught up in what the other skaters are doing,” Krueger said. “What I like to do is just focus on my breathing and kind of find a central calm. You need to be aware of what everyone is doing, but you don't want to focus too much on what they're doing.”
“You control your own destiny,” as Celski put it. That applies to the judges too—a skater can cross the finish line first and get disqualified if the officials determine he deliberately impeded another skater. Short track skaters have learned to take those calls in stride, Celski said.
“I speak from experience: A lot of times you're on the short end of the stick, and sometimes you have the advantage,” Celski said. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Celski was disqualified from the 1000m after the judges ruled that he caused another skater to crash in the semifinals. Celski said he’s still “pissed” about that call but isn’t hung up on it.
“That happens a lot of times,” Celski said. “I think in the back of your mind, you know that you control your destiny. And if a pass is close or if you can't defend a pass, then there is a little bit in your mind that can be okay with the decision.”
Reutter summed up every short track skater’s attitude towards the unpredictability of their sport with four simple words: “Well, that’s short track.”
That’s something she both loves and hates about her sport: It’s hard to accept that “every once in a while, you are just plain out of control,” she said. But she also looks at it from another angle.
“My least favorite thing actually turns into my most favorite thing because my sport challenges me to physically be the best I can be at the rink,” Reutter said. “But it also teaches me when I'm outside of the rink, there's so many things you can't control. Lots of bad things happen that aren't your fault, but it's still your responsibility to play the best hand and to be the best you can be.
“There's really no point in trying to place the blame [when] something bad is happening and getting mad about that, but just taking responsibility for what you can control and move on,” she continued. Whether it’s making the best of your 1500m race or the best of your stressful day, “there's something to be said for learning to take what can't be controlled and then focusing on staying in control of yourself and moving forward from there.”
That may be a short tracker’s secret: They prepare for every possible outcome—every type of competitor or judge’s call—so that they don’t need to rely on luck.
“At the end of the day, anything could happen. A lot of times you stick to your game plan early on, and if it works out that way, then okay,” Celski explained. “But 90 percent of the time, it doesn't go the way you thought it was going to. So you prepare for it the best you can, but when push comes to shove, you can't rely on anything else but the experience that you have and the fitness that you have built.”
“Great skaters make their own luck,” Reutter said.